Embracing Open Space Technology at 2014 IT UnMeeting

Brainstorming Outside of the Meeting Room

by Bridgette Austin

unMeeting keynote speaker Clay Shriky. Photo by Jeff Barry

unMeeting keynote speaker Clay Shriky.
Photo by Jeff Barry

If the idea of an “UnMeeting” seems unconventional at first glance, that’s because it is. Following a successful inaugural event in 2013, NYU held its second annual IT UnMeeting on January 15th at the NYU School of Law’s Greenberg Lounge. Over 100 people attended the event, which was organized by the NYU TorchTech steering committee.

TorchTech describes itself as a “community-led group of professionals at NYU who have an interest in technology.” Inspired in part by Stanford University’s IT UnConference, as well as TorchTech’s goal of connecting NYU’s technology community from various departments and schools, the UnMeeting’s format follows an Open Space Technology (OST) approach. By tasking participants—rather than meeting sponsors or facilitators—to create the agenda, the IT UnMeeting seeks to “open up” a space where professionals from across NYU’s global IT organizations can participate in, and lead sessions around, themes pertinent to their interests.

“The UnMeeting takes months to plan, and everyone who was involved made an extraordinary commitment to keeping the flame of TorchTech alive,” said Evan Silberman, IT Director of the Silver School of Social Work and Chair of the TorchTech steering committee. He also credits past experience and attendee feedback from the 2013 IT UnMeeting for helping to make this year’s event as rewarding as the last. “We had the experience and success of our inaugural UnMeeting that helped our community understand the event, the value of a self-organizing agenda, and the importance of coming together as a community to tackle important issues like the disruption of higher education.”

unMeeting Kicks off with Keynote Speaker Clay Shirky

A key highlight of the 2014 IT UnMeeting was special guest Clay Shirky, Associate Arts Professor for Tisch’s ITP program and the Department of Journalism. Shirky delivered an inspiring keynote on the integration of Internet technologies into academic practice. His discussion hit upon several hot topics, including the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and how NYU can adapt to market changes by being more agile, loosely jointed, and platform-oriented as U.S. universities and colleges reevaluate the current structure of higher education.

It was clear that Shirky’s message, which subsequently helped frame the UnMeeting’s theme and fuel ideas for the agenda, resonated with attendees. Silberman revealed that, “The UnMeeting’s agenda creation process was truer to form of Open Space Technology, on which the event was designed. This created a greater opportunity for dialogue that was meaningful to participants.”

Using OST to Collaborate and Connect

UnMeeting registrants were encouraged to begin the conversation prior to the event using the Twitter hashtag #torchtech, and connect with registered colleagues via the TorchTech website. The hashtag made for interesting live tweeting prior to and during the actual event, enhancing conversations around the various discussion topics, and contributing to the OST environment.

One of the most exciting aspects of the UnMeeting was the breakout discussions, as well as the discovery and interaction that resulted from the 24 topics presented during the two 45-minute sessions. Following Shirky’s keynote, TorchTech volunteers asked participants to propose and post agenda items onto blank whiteboards facing the audience. Armed with large sticky notes and markers, audience members quickly filled the whiteboards with ideas ranging from gamification to cloud based file management. See a complete list of topics and notes from both sessions.

Participants who volunteered topics assumed the de facto role of discussion leader and meeting facilitator. However, the loud buzz of conversations, and engagement among participants within each of the breakout spaces, proved that everyone, regardless of role, had much to contribute in the form of ideas, recommendations, insights, and questions. And, if group members found they weren’t learning or contributing to the discussion, they were encouraged to use the “Law of Two Feet” and find another one.

Leizel Vergara, a member of ITS’ Identity & Database Services team, led the discussion on “Social CRM.” Reflecting on her first-time experience at the UnMeeting, Leizel remarked, “I witnessed firsthand how a little bit of organized chaos can spark good ideas and bring about real collaboration between members of the NYU IT community–people who never really interact or work with each other on a daily basis. UnMeeting was a great way to develop our professional IT network for the benefit of the entire University.”

Executive Director of the Digital Communications Group at Public Affairs and ITS, Jim Robertson, shared similar thoughts about the UnMeeting’s impact on NYU’s IT community: “The largest value of the UnMeeting continues to be the connections made between and among participants over shared interests, experiences, and challenges.” Robertson continued, “There is a lot of talent and commitment across NYU, and the UnMeeting helps to surface some of this talent and commitment that might otherwise not be widely known.”

Reinforcing Community through Active Participation

unMeeting participant Francesca Socolick.Photo by Jeff Barry

unMeeting participant Francesca Socolick.
Photo by Jeff Barry

Towards the end of the event, participants were asked to complete the sentence, “As a Result of Today…” with tidbits they learned or took away from the UnMeeting. Attendees posted their responses on Twitter and on whiteboards in the room to express how the UnMeeting connected them to colleagues they had never met; boosted their confidence and knowledge of IT issues and trends; and reinforced the importance of considering new ways of thinking about their roles and contributions at the University.

“There was an overwhelming response from attendees about the importance of meeting colleagues from across NYU,” Silberman said regarding feedback from the event. “It was remarkable and rewarding to hear how much participants gained from their brief time together. There was a sense of coming together and benefiting from our shared experiences.”

On how the 2014 IT UnMeeting differed from the previous year, Robertson said, “The 2014 UnMeeting was more “organic” than 2013’s meeting, in that it was more driven by the participants and more open to self-organization. This was a purposeful evolution by the UnMeeting planning committee.”

Silberman agreed, commenting, “Looking back to when TorchTech started, with the inaugural 2013 IT UnMeeting, it’s incredibly meaningful to see how many people participated in this year’s event. It demonstrates the importance of what we do and how valuable it is to our community and the University. That’s truly priceless.”

What’s Next for the IT unMeeting

Fresh off the heels of their 2014 UnMeeting, the TorchTech steering committee is still busy assessing participants’ feedback, which will play a pivotal role in shaping next year’s event. “Currently, we’re exploring the idea of hosting the next UnMeeting in Brooklyn at the new Media and Games Network space. As for next year’s UnMeeting, I hope we’re able to articulate our theme more clearly and continue to make it relevant and meaningful to our audience.”

In the interim, TorchTech plans to continue its grassroots efforts to build and strengthen NYU’s IT community through various initiatives. For more information on TorchTech information, resources, and upcoming events, visit www.torchtech.law.nyu.edu.